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Fryn Jesse

(1888-1958) – War correspondent

With maternal roots in Cornwall, Fryn arrived in Newlyn, aged 17, to study painting at the Forbes School, becoming editor of her friend Elizabeth Forbes’ publication 'Paper Chase'. Her metier was writing and, as a Daily Mail journalist in 1914, she witnessed the Battle of Alost before escaping on the last boat from Antwerp.

Credit: Hypatia Trust, Penzance

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Fryn was born at Holly Bowers, Chislehurst, Kent, the home of her mother’s family who were Cornish in origin. Her father, the Reverend Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt Jesse was the Rector of Kirkley in Suffolk, an eccentric and high-church Anglican much devoted to Catholic rituals in the living purchased for him by his father-in-law.

At birth her given name was Wynifried Margaret Jesse, the second daughter of three born into a family of literary connection.  Her grandmother, Emily Tennyson, became engaged to her brother’s (later Alfred, Lord Tennyson) closest friend and fellow poet at Cambridge, Arthur Henry Hallam (immortalised in ‘In Memoriam’). Hallam’s life abruptly ended, at age 22, by a sudden stroke, before they could marry. Eustace was proud of his family connection, and Fryn signified it in the change of her name.

Fryn had a facility with words and was a sensitive observer.  Following a chaotic childhood, she arrived in Newlyn in 1906 to study art at the Forbes’ School of Painting, accompanied by her cousin Cicely Jesse. They lodged at Myrtle Cottage and the cousins quickly became popular members of the art crowd. 

Fryn edited Paper Chase, the ‘school’ magazine, in 1908-9 for Elizabeth Forbes. There were two volumes before Elizabeth became too ill to carry the publication forward. As Editor, Fryn styled herself as ‘The March Hare’ and scurried about gathering news and artistic contributions from her readers. In Elizabeth’s final illness, Fryn visited her dear friend  in France, hoping for her recovery.

When war broke out Frynwas living in London.  The Daily Mail sent her to the front with £40 in sovereigns and a large hold-all.  This was two years after losing fingers when trying to learn to fly over Lake Windermere.  Soon she became the Daily Mail’s star war correspondent, with headlines like ‘Girl in the Firing Line – The Advantage of Being Small’.    Fryn witnessed the Battle of Alost from a sugar beet field with bullets pinging about her ears.  She left Antwerp on the last boat to Tilbury the day before the Germans arrived. 

In January 1915 Fryn visited Rotterdam and on her return appealed for funds to help Belgian refugees.  Making three further visits to France during the war she looked into the state of hospitals, saw her play The Mask performed in Montmartre, and reported on the Women’s Army.  In 1916, at the death of Alec Forbes on the battlefield, she was called to Stanhope’s bedside in Newlyn after he collapsed with grief.

Fryn married fellow playwright Harold (Tottie) Harwood in 1918. Her later life was devoted to speaking up for women. Among her most famous novels was A Pin to See the Peepshow in 1934 that focused on a miscarriage of justice - the hanging of Edith Jessie Thompson. 

Key words: women

Credit: Hypatia Trust, Penzance.  Watercolour portrait painted at Vence, 1912